It’s almost as if you couldn’t begin a portrait of Berlin studio Drache und Bär without the customary words that introduce a fairy-tale: Once upon a time, there was…. The objects that inhabit their world make the impression of stills dredged from such a tale, a reflection of their thematic choices and the way in which they realize these using pictures and narratives. Telling stories is something that artist Lena Hensel and product designer Grzegorz Cholewiak clearly love to do. The couple moved to Berlin a little over half a year ago and the bewitching feeling you have viewing their work, which sits so comfortably between art, graphics and design, is echoed when you step into their shop-cum-apartment in north Berlin. It’s here, under a wall filled with photographs of their ancestors, that they welcome us for a cup of tea and a conversation.
You’re based in Charlottenburg in north Berlin. It’s an unusual location for a design studio.
Lena: Yes, we get that a lot actually. It was by coincidence, a happy one but a coincidence none the less, that we ended up here. A couple of Polish scholarship students used to live here. One of them was a friend of ours and it was through them that we heard about the rooms when the apartment was free. It was time for us to move and the apartment, with the private rooms at the back and the shop space at the front, was perfect. We need lots of space when we work. That the shop space is included is nice but we use the space more for exhibiting our work than anything else.
Why did you leave Cracow?
Lena: I’m from Berlin but I spent seven years living in Cracow; I studied art there and met Grzegorz. We started our first collaborative project, the Czarodziejska project, there. Cracow is a small city though and Berlin simply has more opportunities to offer. It got to the point where it was just time to take the next step.
And you changed the name of your studio at the same time?
Lena: We couldn’t keep the old one – just try saying ‘Czarodziejska’. The literal translation wouldn’t work. Our studio in Cracow was in a type of ruin on the Czarodziejska Street – the magical road. It was a fitting name because the street really did look enchanted. But it doesn’t work anymore.
The new name has something magical about it too – as though it came out of a fairy tale…
Lena: Bär (bear) represents Berlin while Drache (dragon) is the mythical creature that represents Cracow. The name brings the two cities, Berlin and Cracow, together; it also unites the real and the fantastical – in other words, the intersections at which we work. If you look at our designs, you’ll see that they’re practical and functional but also that there’s always a meta-level. We don’t just design products; we also create a whole world. Our products don’t come with traditional instruction manuals but rather a small story.
You do everything yourselves: the photography, art, corporate and product design, even advertising. Why?
Lena: That came about through our collaboration. We noticed, especially over the last two years, how important having our own narrative was. For example, we started staging the product photographs ourselves. We only begin designing a product now once we know the story behind it.
You enjoy designing products for children and have a daughter. Are the two connected?
Lena: Yes. The hand wheel, for example – that came about as a result of a personal experience. When we were in the park, our daughter would always enviously watch the other children who had big plastic bicycles. She was still too small for one so Grzegorz went into the workshop one day and built her a hand wheel; that then became her favourite object of all. Suddenly, all the other children were looking enviously at her and her old-fashioned toy. We became interested in the idea of toys that encourage exploration after that. We didn’t design anything new per se but began rather to look more closely at traditional folk toys, at classic toys, and to reinterpret them. At the same time, we wanted to make something truly good, something that would last.
Are a lot of your designs rooted in personal needs?
Grzegorz: Not all of them, of course. There’s a similar story behind the Kvadrat shelf. I wanted an object that could be used for different things at different times. My starting point was a chair but I wanted to avoid making a traditional chair. The interesting thing about chairs is how they are always being repurposed: we use them for storage, or we place a projector on them, or we use them as a ladder to reach something else. Kvadratt is multifunctional and modular, an object that achieves its function precisely through use….
A universal building block for the home?
Grzegorz: Kvadratt can be used as a stool, a table or as a climbing tunnel in a children’s room. With multiple units, you could build shelves or a desk.
Is versatility important then?
Lena: We don’t want to make seasonal objects that bend with the wind, that are beholden to trends. We want to make objects that accompany people through their lives and to do that they have to be functional. We place a great deal of emphasis on the quality of the production process because that plays a large role in whether or not products survive use in a household.
Lena: We’re always looking for the essence of simplicity. That doesn’t mean that these objects are simple to make. Perfection takes time. We want things to be simply but perfectly simple.
Interview by Tanja Pabelick for MONOQI.
Images: Tanja Pabelick
On Sale on MONOQI until 10th of August: Drache und Bär